Stopping Bullying Before It Begins: Part 1

To help prevent our children from bullying others we need to do two things:

  1. Help them learn how their behaviour can effect others
  2. Help them get what they need in socially appropriate ways

Learning to empathise
We should start teaching children about empathy as early as possible. We can use story books that address emotions, body language and characters that impact each other emotionally. For example, my picture book, Dave is Brave, was designed to help parents and teachers talk about bullying and how rough behaviour can make others feel. The focus on pictures of expressive, realistic facial expressions and body language is designed to help children learn to “read” these expressions and thus predict others’ emotions – helping to develop their “Theory of Mind.”

Secondly, we need to promote value for diversity. We can do this by reading stories, and playing with games and toys that reflect, or celebrate, diversity. We need to celebrate both cultural diversity and individual diversity (disabilities, gender, physical differences and so on). As adults, we also need to model respect, tolerance and inclusion of others no matter what their abilities, personalities, characteristics or culture.

Finally, we need to make the most of teachable moments.

An example of a teachable moment: Helping a leader empathise
Jane, Sally and Tom are playing with the dolls. They have put the dolls to bed, and are now preparing “dinner”. As they are busy “cooking”, Peta joins them and picks up one of the dolls.

Sally rushes over and grabs the doll. “You can’t play here! It’s our game! Go away!”

Peta bursts into tears, desperately clinging to her chosen doll. Sally begins pushing her.

Ask yourself…

“Why is Sally reacting this way?”

Most probably it is because she is the ‘leader’ of the little group and prefers to be in control of the situation. This is not necessarily a negative trait. We need leaders. But we need leaders who can empathise.

So, first, we need Sally to think about how she has hurt Peta. The best way to do this is to follow these steps:

  1. Keeping Sally close-by, comfort Peta.
  2. Turn to Sally and ask her to look at Peta, especially her face.
  3. Ask Sally, “How do you think Peta is feeling?” Prompt (give suggestions) and affirm (rather than praise) a positive response.
  4. Ask Sally, “How can we make Peta feel better?”
  5. Sum up by talking about what Sally and Peta could do next time (Peta could ask, Sally could find her a part to play).

I believe that the critical message Amanda has shared today is that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to help our children learn to empathise. By not making excuses for inappropriate behaviour, such as, “They are just a toddler/preschooler,” or, “Two year olds push/hit/bite all the time,” or, “It’s just a stage they are going through,” when young girls say, “You can’t play.” Yes, these are behaviours we often associate with young children but it is our responsibility to teach the child that such actions (whether they be physical or verbal) hurt another person, whether it be physically or emotionally. – Christie

What are your thoughts? Have you seen examples of young children behaving in socially unacceptable ways which have been dismissed by adults as simply a result of their development or ‘spirited’ nature?

With thanks to Amanda of Learn to Be Buddies for this guest post.

Read more of our bullying series:

Photo source


  1. I'm really enjoying this series of posts. It is such important work to do with young before-school-age children – I'd probably even say the most important work you can do in a preschool environment.

    Absolutely agree with the 2 steps. It takes a lot of work but the payoffs for the children are enormous. And the feeling you get when you watch kids work things out themselves using socially acceptable methods makes teaching worthwhile.

    I'm loving at the moment watching our older kids 'teaching' our younger, newer kids the ropes in this area – reminding them to use their words; voicing their feelings etc. One of the joys of mixed aged groupings!

  2. Hear Mum Roar says:

    I truly do believe that we all as parents need to teach our children not to bully first, then teach them how to deal with others who are bullies.

    Yes, I've heard lots of excuses over the years for inaction, my personal favourite being: 'they're just being boys'.

    It drives me insane! I have a son, and yes, he can get a bit full-on at times, but I don't use his gender as an excuse to not teach socially appropriate behaviour to him.

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